The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Follower, not a leader

By most accounts, the United States maintains its status as a world superpower economically, militarily, technologically, charitably and even artistically.

In educating its citizens, however, America is not exactly a superpower.

In July, the College Board — the organization that administers the SAT — released a report stating the U.S. fell to 12th out of 36 developed nations in the percentage of 25 to 34-year-old adults with college degrees, using data from 2007.  Although this percentage increased 3.5 percent from 2000 to 2008, America’s ranking compared to other countries is alarming to education experts since the U.S. was at the top of this category in the 1980s.

According to the College Board’s report, America’s baby boomer generation is a highly educated and rapidly aging workforce that will be retiring in droves in the near future. It is not expected that the younger generation will match their parent’s level of education, according to the report.

The fear is the lack of growth in college degrees will lead to a lack of  economic growth. The U.S. is already facing a surging Chinese economy and the diminishing power of the dollar. Add to that an uneducated workplace, and you have the potential for a stalled economy.

How necessary is a college degree?

Experts say this issue is of top concern.

“The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis,” said Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, at a Capitol Hill briefing in July.

Steve Malpezzi, a professor of Urban Land Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said while he is very concerned with the exorbitantly high costs of higher education, there is no doubt most individuals would benefit from having a degree.

“College degrees and other higher education have become more critical, not less, over time,” Malpezzi said in an e-mail. “And there’s no indication this trend will change any time soon.”

Abdur Chowdhury, chair of the economics department at Marquette, agreed with Malpezzi’s sentiments on the importance of college degrees. Chowdhury said having a high percentage of college graduates leads to higher productivity in the economy and greater national growth.

“Education pays,” he said. “Individuals who enroll and succeed in college, and the nation as a whole, enjoy high rates of return to investments in quality higher education.”

Politicians across the country have made the topic of education a major talking point on the campaign trail. President Barack Obama has even made a John F. Kennedy-type prediction concerning education.

“By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” he said in a speech in Warren, Mich., in July 2009.

Obama’s American Graduation Initiative was an ambitious plan to increase the number of degrees and certificates by five million over the next 10 years, but it was dropped from the reconciliation bill when the major health care legislation passed in the spring.

The proposed plan included increased financial aid and tax benefits to students, greater funding to community colleges and the abolition of government subsidies to private companies for student loans.

What’s hindering higher education?

But some would question whether it is even worth going to college anymore. The cost of a college degree is still on the rise, far outpacing most wage increases.

There is little doubt the huge surge in education costs has contributed to many students taking a semester off, or three. Also, some would rather work year-round, albeit for what is likely a tiny salary, than pay thousands of dollars per year to attend school.

Ben Knuesel, a former Marquette student who transferred to Bemidji State University in Minnesota during the summer of 2010, considered dropping out of college for a time in order to start working. Knuesel said the tens of thousands of dollars he was borrowing every year to attend Marquette was too high a price to pay for a degree.

Knuesel, a junior in the College of  Business, Technology & Communication, said had he been able to get steady work, he would have most likely dropped out.

“What’s the point of spending large amounts of money on education, considering there is no guarantee you will even get a job?” he said. “Plus, with student loans, you have to pay that money back for the next eight years.”

Knuesel is not alone.

According to a May 2010 report by Grantmakers for Education, just 57 percent of students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years or less, and a big reason for this is money.

The retention problem

Until education costs are reigned in, expect America’s retention rates — the percentage of first-year students who return to the same institution the following year — to remain at a standstill. And that’s bad news, educators say.

“Retention is where the real problem is at,” said Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in reference to America’s stalled growth in adults with college degrees.

Just 78 percent of students who enter a four-year college intending to obtain a bachelor’s degree make it to their sophomore year of college, according to the Grantmakers’ reports.

Marquette retained 89 percent of full-time students between 2008 and 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Education groups and experts have pinpointed raising retention rates as the most likely way America will once again have the most college graduates globally.

Gamoran placed part of the blame for America’s low retention rates on the students themselves.

“Some people go to college because they want the rewards that come from a college degree, but they don’t want to do the work that is required,” he said.

Others, Gamoran said, figure out while in college that the profession they want to go into does not require a college degree, so they see no point in continuing their education.

“On average, a person is better off with a college degree than without a college degree,” Gamoran said. “The earnings are much higher for those with a degree than for those without.”

According to a 2007 report by economist Sandy Baum, the average college graduate makes $300,000 more over the course of a 40-year working lifetime than the average high school graduate, and that’s after the cost of going to college is subtracted from the total.

“But, if he is leaving for a career that he finds rewarding, for that individual it’s better to go without college,” Gamoran said.

Gamoran offered numerous ways America could improve its retention rates among college students, including offering more financial aid and better preparing high school students for their future life away from home.

Many experts on the subject seem to think America’s solution to the higher education conundrum comes from two broad areas of reform: an overhaul of the K-12 educational system and making college more affordable for the average American.

“As important as college is, for each of us, it pales in comparison to the importance of the first grade,” Malpezzi said. “If someone doesn’t succeed in elementary or high school, the best universities in the world are useless to them.”

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